People attending the preview of Eyes On Xiaoze Xie

Censorship & Contemporary Art: Xiaoze Xie Talks Chinese Media & Banned Books

Artist Xiaoze Xie focuses his paintings, photographs, and installations on Chinese history and politics. Xie’s art reflects his fascination with media and his contemporary art projects revolve around the temporality of media, often depicting books and newspapers in his paintings, photographs, and installations. On November 29, Xie presented the final Logan Lecture of the series 10 Years of Artists on Art. Co-sponsored by DAM Contemporaries and the Asian Art Association, the lecture touched on Xie’s background and inspirations. A preview of the Denver Art Museum exhibition, Eyes On: Xiaoze Xie (on view through July 8, 2018), which showcases the artist’s work on media, followed the talk.

Xie found his lasting passion with politics and how they relate to media through his experiences as a graduate student pursuing painting during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (June Fourth Incident 六四事件) in Beijing. Using painting as a way to “engage a more specific dialogue with history,” Xie began his ongoing project, the Library Series, in 1993 as a way to address the censorship of media he witnessed in China. The series, however, retains more global aspirations – beyond China and beyond censorship. Xie explores the world through books, with individual projects ranging from university libraries in Nepal to public libraries in the U.S. His paintings grapple with the ephemerality of media and test lofty themes like decay and destruction.

Although a photorealistic painter, Xie considers his work similar to the color-field style of Mark Rothko, an effect he creates with extreme close-ups on his subjects. Playing with volume and empty space, Xie speaks of his detailed renditions of books in oil paint as evoking more assuming topics: from landscapes to architecture to geological layers. Xie’s “frugal” palette further enhances the composition of his work and emphasizes shape rather than color.

Xiaoze Xie, The Morgan Library and Museum (f138), 2017. Oil paint on canvas; 48 x 82 in. Collection of Jerry Neumann © Xiaoze Xie
Xiaoze Xie, The Morgan Library and Museum (f138), 2017. Oil paint on canvas; 48 x 82 in. Collection of Jerry Neumann. © Xiaoze Xie.

The monumental nature of Xie’s paintings speaks to the monumental nature of the themes that he tests in his work. Xie grapples with the fleetingness and fragility of media. Even as the close-cropped compositions distort the depicted books, Xie uses texture to maintain the realness of his subject, allowing the paint’s texture to reflect the state of deterioration.

Pondering the transience of media, Xie asks: “What are we going to do with this legacy?” Xie recognizes the fallibility of media, the destruction at the hands of humans, and the weathering from the elements of nature. His art captures a still life slice of media, preserving a transitory fragment. His question raises a familiar human concern: how to leave a lasting impact. Yet the subject of media and the themes of censorship and decline showcase an opposing side of legacy – the legacy of erasure that reduces rather than creates. Through his art, Xie continually questions how China (and the rest of the world) will continue to move on from periods of destruction, how to account for burned books and lost manuscripts, and how to rebuild culture and history.

Image at top: Attendees discussing Xie’s work during the preview of Eyes On: Xiaoze Xie.

Katherine Uhlir wrote for DAM Contemporaries.